Dogears: An American Wife in Black

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American WifeAmerican Wife Curtis Sittenfeld Random House 2008

Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House
September 2, 2008

American Wife began as a 2004 non-fiction article in Salon where writer Curtis Sittenfeld, a self-identified “staunch liberal,” confessed her love for first lady Laura Bush. This fascination eventually evolved into American Wife, Sittenfeld’s third novel. American Wife follows the life of Alice Lindgren, a bookish Midwesterner, from her childhood to her days as the First Lady. Alice’s life circumstances are similar in many ways to the former First Lady’s: she accidently kills a high school classmate when driving, she went to graduate school for Library Science, and she fell in love and married a rich boy who would eventually become the POTUS. But, of course, the inner workings of Alice belong solely to the author’s imagination.

Alice seems similar to a lot of Sittenfeld’s protagonists, but that’s not a problem for me as I love Sittenfeld’s books for her protagonists, their insights, their likeability, and their unlikeability. Sittenfeld’s Prep was one of the first books that taught me how to love an unlikeable female protagonist and appreciate the importance of an unlikeable female protagonist. And like the author’s former two novels (both of which I have read and loved), she is generous with her characters, but doesn’t let her characters off the hook. She just lets them be human, finding and confronting their actions and justifications, but not always in a way the reader appreciates.  Sittenfeld’s insight into the human heart and mind always blows me away, and this ability is more finely honed in American Wife, a very ambitious novel. The ending is a more cathartic than either Prep or The Man of My Dreams – it feels like a liberal wish fulfillment. But, it’s not a catharsis that leaves you entirely satisfied which is why Sittenfeld continues to be one of my favorite contemporary authors.

— Ginnis 

Snow White and the 77 DwarfsSnow White and the 77 Dwarves Davide Cali, Raphaelle Barbanegre, Tundra Books, 2015

Davide Cali & Raphaëlle Barbanègre
Tundra Books
April 14, 2015

Oh, man. I should preface this by saying that I don’t read picture books for fun or for review, but Random House Canada surprised me with a copy of Snow White and the 77 Dwarfs. If that title sounds familiar, it’s probably because it was one of the books featured in Random House Canada’s preview event. It’s a fun book that puts a hilarious spin on the Snow White story with not 7 but 77 dwarfs. Raphaëlle Barbanègre’s illustration is stunning and the expression on Snow White’s face is enough to sell me on this book (the dwarfs are adorable). I definitely recommend reading this book regardless of age for a good time and buy it for the little one in your life. I plan on giving this to my younger cousin but I think I’ll keep it a while longer first.

–Ardo

Bellman & BlackBellman & Black Diane Setterfield Bond Street Books 2014

Diane Setterfield
Bond Street Books
October 15, 2013

If you want to live a long and happy life, it’s best to avoid William Bellman, the protagonist of Bellman & Black.

It’s not that William is a bad person. In fact, he’s a rather good, and often quite kind, person. But when he was eleven, he bet his friends he could hit a rook with his slingshot. He succeeded and killed the rook. That small act was the catalyst for everything to come after. As you follow his story from the age of eleven, through to his twilight years, you realize that death seems to follow him. In fact, for the first half of the novel it felt as though someone he knew died in every chapter — starting with distant relatives and employees and then eventually his wife and all his children save one, his daughter Dora. At each funeral he sees a stranger, dressed in black but it isn’t until he gets drunk one night that he actually meets the man and they enter into a partnership to build a funeral goods store called Bellman & Black.

This is one of those books that I wanted to like so much more than I did. The concept is an interesting one and I really did enjoy William’s character arc. He started with nothing and built himself up to become a well respected member of the community. But tragedy after tragedy weighs down on him and he begins to lose pieces of himself, including many of the qualities that made him so endearing in the early pages of the novel.

But despite the interesting character development, there were a number of little elements that really dragged down the flow of the story. The frequent deaths for example. In the beginning you feel bad for this unlucky man, but as more and more people die, the events lose their gravity. They feel like little more than convenient plot devices to get William and the stranger in black in the same place. And death should never feel like just a plot device. There are also a number of short interludes about the (fictional) history of rooks, which don’t feel like they add anything to the story and break up the pacing of the novel so that a rather short book ends up feeling much longer than it is.

— Christa

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